George Strait and Martina McBride at Xcel Energy Center, 2/15/13

George Strait and Martina McBride at Xcel Energy Center, 2/15/13
Photo by Stacy Schwartz

George Strait and Martina McBride
Xcel Energy Center, St. Paul
Friday, February 15, 2013

George Strait and Martina McBride were two of the major brick layers on the bridge between what we've come to call "real" country -- the heartbreak and honky tonk from the '50s through the '70s -- and whatever it is you want to call what Nashville has today. Their songs are true to the genre, heart-rending, like Strait's signature "Amarillo by Morning," or cinematic, like McBride's "Independence Day." Though Strait encroached into the sing-songy on "Check Yes or No" and McBride went on to append "pop" to her country, history will likely count these two among the last vestiges of the genre before a big, disgusting honky-tonk badonkadonk suffocated it to death.

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Slideshow: George Strait and Martina McBride at Xcel Energy Center

Though the curse of any successful artist is to draw comparisons to their predecessors, it's important to note that Blake Sheldon and Dierks Bentley aren't the children of Hank Williams and George Jones; it's Strait who is their daddy. So when the father of modern country music chooses to, as his tour name suggests, ride away, his offspring must have their pretty little eyes on his throne. Pray for our children.

But the King ain't dead yet. Strait apparently plans to stay in the business and record; just don't expect to catch him on any future tours. All this in the air, Friday night's sold-out, double-billed McBride and Strait concert at the Xcel in Saint Paul was festive and somber as a revered lame duck's parting address.

George Strait and Martina McBride at Xcel Energy Center, 2/15/13
Photo by Stacy Schwartz

McBride opened with a satisfying set. The crowd stayed in their seats, but boots were in motion and several songs caused more than a few old cowboys to stretch their weary arms across their cowgirl's shoulders. We'll forgive her for melding "The First Cut is the Deepest" and "Free Falling" into one song in the middle of her set, because she still has the voice of a Middle American angel. And those pipes weren't backed by no recording; that's all Kansas corn. Her otherworldly high notes likely changed some lives Friday night.

George Strait and Martina McBride at Xcel Energy Center, 2/15/13
Photo by Stacy Schwartz

Strait's set was presented like a personal history, a song-by-song recapping of his storied career. Here's a man who knows his audience as well as any performer ever has, and he didn't shortchange it by skipping any hits. "Amarillo by Morning," "Check Yes or No" and "The Chair" rightly invigorated the arena, a collective agreement of getting their money's worth. The show hit its peak when McBride joined Strait to sing a duet of, get this, "Jackson."


With the rectangular stage centering the arena, the crowd enjoyed equal time gazing upon the performer's front and back. McBride was cordless and without guitar, so she paraded around the stage, winking and waving like Amy Poeller on Parks and Rec and spreading the face time munificently. Strait schlepped his geetar around the four corner-positioned mic stands, singing two or three at each before rotating. Something tells me the middle-aged women weren't complaining at any vantage point.

George Strait and Martina McBride at Xcel Energy Center, 2/15/13
George Strait and Martina McBride at Xcel Energy Center, 2/15/13
Photos by Stacy Schwartz

Look, these two are veterans. Getting an arena full of cowboys and suburban office workers wearing cowboy hats to swoon is all in a night's work. McBride sang "King of the Road" for God's sake -- and damned if the Capitol couldn't hear us when she let us shout that "we AIN'T GOT NO CIGARETTES." Before Strait came on, we were treated a jumbotron montage of King George winning CMAs since the early 1980s. Cheesy? Perhaps. Self congratulatory? Darn tootin'. But that's what the Cowboy Rides Away tour is for. It's a two-way hat tip between the King of Modern Country music and his legions of heartlanders who he helped through a divorce or whose father-daughter wedding dance he soundtracked.

You remove your cap when this cowboy rides away.

George Strait Setlist:
Here For a Good Time
Ocean Front Property
Check Yes or No
I Saw God Today
Drinkin' Man
A Showman's Life
Love's Gonna Make It Alright
Arkansas Dave
Jackson (With Martina McBride)
Golden Ring (With Martina McBride)
Blame It On Mexico
Her Goodbye Hit Me In the Heart
80 Proof Bottle of Tear Stopper
Honky Tonk Crazy
Marina Del Rey
A Fire I Can't Put Out
The Chair
River of Love
How Bout Them Cowgirls
Stars on the Water
Give It Away
Living for the Night
Amarillo by Morning
Give It All We Got Tonight
I'll Always Remember You
All My Ex's Live in Texas
Folsom Prison Blues
The Cowboy Rides Away

Critic's Bias: I grew up listening to these songs. They immediately take me back to the car rides of my childhood, and I may have teared up a little when McBride sang "Independence Day."

Random Notebook Dump: George Strait is the Eddie Bauer of Cowboys. You don't pity him like you do George Jones. Did the baby ever really have a toothache?

The Crowd: Wholesome women and iPhone Cowboys.

Overheard: [Referring to McBride]: "She's just like someone's hot mom."
[During every one of Strait's between-song banter]
Wife: "What'd he say?"
Husband [in stitches]: *Repeats everything Strait just said.*

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